Airport water plan wins Wicomico council approval

A state- and county-funded waterline from the water tower at Wor-Wic Community College to Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport has at long last been approved by the Wicomico County Council.

Following a series of procedural votes held in a tension-filled meeting conducted online Tuesday night with the seven members interacting remotely, the council voted 5-2 to approve an agreement with the city of Salisbury to provide municipal water to the airport. 

State, regional and county officials have long regarded the hook-up essential to sustaining the airport’s potential as an economic engine, bringing new jobs and industries to an entire region.

The airport has received sewer service from the city for decades, but the airport’s failing water well system became a health issue, which inhibited business expansion within the airport’s footprint.

State officials previously earmarked some $4.4 million for the project. The county is spending about $300,000 on design and construction, and would then become a water-bill-paying customer to the city.

In a surprise move in early April, the council tabled a negotiated agreement between the city of Salisbury and the county that called for water to be piped about 2 miles from the city water station near Route 50, south along Walston Switch Road to the airport.

Council members then said they were concerned the public had neither been properly informed on the project nor given an opportunity for a public hearing.

Under legislative rules, the agreement between the city and county was exercised in the form of dual resolutions, which don’t require a public input forum.

When Council President Larry Dodd did not place the airport matter on the council’s April 21 agenda, the independent Airport Commission swung into action, orchestrating a 2-hour, 20-minute online session that addressed dozens of publicly submitted questions.

The digital form, aired live on the cable-access channel PAC 14, also included project explanations from engineers. Salisbury Mayor Jake Day also participated to explain the city’s policies for providing municipal services for tracts not within the city limits.

Dodd and District 5 Councilman Joe Holloway were the most skeptical and were joined by council members Ernie Davis and Nicole Acle to table the measure.

In light of the Airport Commission hearing, however, Acle and Davis? voted Tuesday to approve the water plan.

The final vote came after a series of tense exchanges, made more awkward by the use of the Zoom online platform where members communicated via computers. First, Council Vice President John Cannon and Councilman Bill McCain both insisted the airport matter be placed back before the body.

After a series of votes that followed legislative procedures the council is rarely called upon to engage — any of the votes had the potential to derail the project — the final tally was 5-2.

Council forum needed

Holloway, who was on the losing side of the vote, said the Airport Commission forum wasn’t sufficient to inform the public. He also said questions and documents he had requested from the County Executive’s Office were neither answered, nor presented.

“A forum where citizens can attend would be the way to go on this,” Holloway said. Dodd had also previously declared the matter should be put on hold until the current coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

McCain countered that the Airport Commission’s town hall event “was a much better forum” than a regular public hearing, because it allowed citizen questions to be answered directly by experts.

An October 2016 directive from the Water Management Administration, part of the Maryland Department of the Environment, ruled the waterline from Wor-Wic to the airport could only be built as a “Denied Access Line.”  

No properties along the route would be permitted to hook up to the line. State officials don’t want residential growth to occur in rural areas that aren’t part of growth plans.

If access to the line were ever desirable — such as during a public health emergency or some other scenario — Wicomico County’s water and sewer plan would have to be amended. That would require approval from the state, the County Executive and the County Council. Under the rules, the state can’t force either a tie-in or annexation without local approval.

The county-city pact is a Pre-Annexation Agreement, the naming of which has generated fears among nearby residents that their homes could be annexed into the city against their wishes.

Generally, however, properties must petition the city for annexation. Annexations are only approved if the properties are in the city’s urban growth areas. Annexations go through a long process and must ultimately be approved by the elected City Council.

Under Section 4-403 of the state’s Local Government Article, a municipality may initiate an annexation; however it may only do so if it has first obtained the consent of 25 percent of the registered voters in the area to be annexed and the owners of 25 percent of the assessed value of the real property in the area.

In theory, a municipality could initiate the annexation if it first obtained the required consents.

Day, Salisbury’s mayor, has repeatedly maintained an annexation of any residential properties in the vicinity of the airport would not benefit the city.

Business leaders support move

Speaking Wednesday for County Executive Bob Culver, Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg saluted the council’s action.

“The Executive and the Airport Commission wish to thank council members Cannon, McCain, (Josh) Hastings, Davis and Acle for their leadership in bringing this matter to an appropriate conclusion,” Strausburg said.

The community’s two top business and industry groups, the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and Greater Salisbury Committee, also hailed the action.

“Our membership was pleased and relieved that five members of the Wicomico County Council passed the two legislative resolutions paving the way for airport water installation work to proceed,” said Chamber President and CEO Bill Chambers.

“The SBY Airport is recognized as a regional gem, and the addition of city water to the facilities will be an economic shot in the arm for current and future airport users,” Chambers said.

Mike Dunn, President and CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee, agreed.

“This was a frustrating process, for certain,” Dunn said.

“Something that should have been a no-brainer took way too long to accomplish. But in the end, common sense and good sense carried the day.”

The county already has accepted a construction bid on the project and the pipeline track has been staked out along the west side of Walston Switch Road. Work is expected to begin in June.

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